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A Small But Important Change

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:08
Which is: When you type “” in your address bar, it now takes you to Whatever rather than the static page that I’ve had at the site for years and years. Why? Well, because the static page was static, and not especially helpful, and meanwhile pretty much everything that goes on with the site goes […]

How did humans "overshoot" in intelligence? Plus a Tech Roundup!

Contrary Brin - Tue, 08/22/2017 - 20:25
Phew. The news cycle has slowed enough to get our heartbeats down just a tad.  So how about some stimulus on the positive-hopeful side? You are still a member of a spectacular, scientific civilization. The War on Science (and all other fact-using professions) will not succeed if we keep our spirits up. So let's roll up our sleeves and dive into some amazing stuff.

But our main feature this time? A riff on why humans may have shot way beyond "threshold" levels of intelligence.

== How did we get so smart? And what does it imply? ===

How did we evolve intelligence? Nick Bostrom (author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, has a new paper with Carl Shulman -- where they appraise the Hard Intelligence problem with some panache. Yet they leave out the crucial observation — (I believe I am one of the few to state it explicitly) — called the Glass Ceiling phenomenon.  That the rise to sapience is blatantly non-linear.
We see dozens of species that cluster near quite similar levels of threshold semantic ability and basic tool use.  A level that (in my novels) I have long called “pre-sapience.”  This clustering, which includes several diverse mammals (apes, elephants, sea lions and possibly prairie dogs), birds (corvids, parrots), and perhaps even cephalopods, implies two things:
1- that rising to this level is relatively easy and2- moving beyond it is - for some reason - very hard.
#1 and #2 seem to be logically derived from observation. There are added implications, though. The stunning degree to which we crashed through and moved beyond this ceiling — leaping many orders of magnitude in semantics, tool use and other realms — suggests either:
3- moving through the ceiling, while rare, opens up whole realms of mentation in a nonlinear way.
 Or else
4-  the opposite. Reaping any benefit from sapience requires a species to continue evolving very rapidly, moving to a distant and very difficult plateau, or its fitness profile will collapse back to pre-sapience. Alas, #4 fits the facts better than #3, by far.
Either way, the implications are that human sapience is likely to be rare.
But there’s more. Consider dogs and goats.  As soon as humans developed a 100 word vocabulary and fire and stone spears, we were the top predators - especially after we got a partnership with dogs - and we could then defend goat herds, which proliferated to denude vast stretches of land, causing deserts to spread long before agriculture. Hence, we were already wrecking the planet at that level of borderline effective sapience. (Of course, irrigated agriculture then spread deserts even more dramatically.)
We might now save the Earth!  (See my novel Earth.) But only because we leaped ahead to be capable of ecological science just 10,000 years after we began herding goats. That’s an evolutionary eye-blink, so rapid that much of the planet is still in decent shape!
Picture a species that crosses this gulf more conventionally, or more slowly. Then by the time they get smart enough to understand ecology, it’s already too late. Their world is too impoverished to support a major, industrial civilization, capable of spaceflight.
In other words, our non-linear leap from threshold pre-sapience to interplanetary tech and ecological management might affect the Fermi Paradox in two ways. First, it happens only rarely, and second, it must be very non-linear, almost exponential in order to leave the species with adequate resources to expand.
What might be a mechanism for this non-linear leap? Roger Penrose’s hypotheses merit some scrutiny here. Is it possible that this exponential nonlinearity of mental growth happens because we  reached a threshold, where new modes became possible, suddenly?  Perhaps Penrose’s quantum effects in the brain. Or else dramatic leaps in available software. (The latter is my own theory about this… successful software reprogramming revolutions, 100,000, then 40,000, then 15,000, 6000, 2000, and 250 years ago.  I describe this in Existence.)
Furthermore, Nick Bostrom’s speculations about numbers of neurons winds up being quaint and irrelevant if you ponder recent discoveries about intracellular and inter-cellular computation, which suggest levels of computability many, many orders of magnitude greater than mere synapses.
This suggests that sapience may not be as common as we assumed. Simon Conway-Morris of Cambridge - author of Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe - is the accepted maven of Convergent evolution. But he has lately retracted his earlier stance that full sapience will naturally and convergently evolve.
Finally, there is Nick’s attempt to draw conclusions about the difficulty of artificial intelligence… These  I shrugged aside as tendentious leaps without much justification. In my talk on the future of A.I. to a packed house at IBM's World of Watson congress in Las Vegas, October 2016, I presented a tour of big perspectives on Intelligence, as well as both artificial and human augmentation.

And yes, this will be nonlinear, as well.

== Tools and more tools ==

Stanford’s new, four-layer 3D-chip design replaces silicon with carbon nanotubes (sheets of 2-D graphene formed into nanocylinders). The top layer has sensors, then resistive random-access memory (RRAM) cells. Then two logic layers. Three-dimensional integration is the most promising approach to continue the technology-scaling path set forth by Moore’s law, allowing an increasing number of devices to be integrated per unit volume…
…though in fact, Moore’s law is collapsing in what I call the Big Flip, as the last 50 years of advancement in computational hardware slows down to its long-awaited S-Curve… but progress in software (which had been glacial) seems to have taken off spectacularly - especially in Learning Systems - in just the last couple of years.
A team of researchers at Michigan State University has developed a new type of solar concentrator that when placed over a window creates solar energy while allowing people to actually see through the window.
Pharmacy on Demand: DARPA has a really neat project in battlefield medicine for a small (dorm fridge size) synthesizer that can produce pretty much any basic pharmacy drug (chemical) to GMP levels using base ingredients.
Their next project which is well underway is a biologicals machine (enzymes, mRNAs, etc.) In developing a flexible, miniaturized synthesis and manufacturing platform, Battlefield Medicine will lead to distributed, on-demand small-batch pharmaceutical production in austere environments. 
It correlates with other advances such as the recent Qualcomm "Tricorder XPrize" which advanced the capability of hand carried disease diagnostic systems.  Many pieces are coming together at the same time.
A “living” programmable “ribocomputing” device based on networks of precisely designed, self-assembling synthetic RNAs (ribonucleic acid). The RNAs can sense multiple biosignals and make logical decisions to control protein production with high precision. The research was performed with E. coli bacteria, which regulate the expression of a fluorescent (glowing) reporter protein when the bacteria encounter a specific complex set of intra-cellular stimuli. But the researchers believe ribocomputing devices can work with other host organisms or in extracellular settings. What could go wrong?
Will we see the return of storing bulk data on… magnetic tape? Oh, but at the recent Science Foo Camp (on the Google Campus) George Church told us about the near feasibility of storing all the world's books in a cup of DNA... (Also ask him about resurrecting mammoths!)
All around the world, scientists are building repositories of everything from seeds to ice to mammal milk — racing to preserve a natural order that is fast disappearing.  Both disturbing and reassuring in some ways… though I admit some pique that the description of “life arks” in EARTH (1989) gets no mention.
Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, a new book by Richard A. Clarke & R.P. Eddy, offers insights into how we can weigh predictions, especially when it comes to national security, threatening technologies, the U.S. economy, and possibly the fate of civilization. In Greek mythology Cassandra foresaw calamities, but was cursed by the gods to be ignored. Modern-day Cassandras predicted the disasters of Katrina, Fukushima, the Great Recession, the rise of ISIS, and many more. Like the mythological Cassandra, they were ignored. There are others right now warning of impending disasters, but as Ray Kurzweil asks: “how do we know which warnings are likely to be right? … Clarke’s and Eddy’s penetrating insights are essential for any person, any business, or any government that doesn’t want to be a blind victim of tomorrow’s catastrophe.”  
Alas, short-shrift is given to the truest font of such alarums… hard, high-level science fiction.
== And some setbacks ==
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) -- who is bafflingly chair of the House Science Committee -- penned an op-ed praising the “benefits” of climate change. He goes so far as to celebrate carbon dioxide emissions for melting Arctic ice to allow for “new commercial shipping lanes”. They've spent years telling us climate change wasn’t happening, then human-generated CO2 wasn't responsible... and now it’s suddenly a good thing?' Sorry 314 guys. This has been going on for years. 

These towering hypocrites shift the goal posts with stunning agility. Vast farms in Canada will replace those lost to desert in Mexico and Texas! (Oops, there's no topsoil up there, and even if things warm enough for crops, there'll just be one, short growing season, to replace two long ones, down south.) And thawing tundra will pour gigatons of methane into the atmosphere. But this is the sort of raving monster the GOP puts in charge of the Science Committee. And even if your crazed uncle is beyond reach, maybe his wife isn't. Go have coffee with your aunt. 

He may relish the end of the world; she'll frown and worry about her grandchildren.
Here's a good article on METI - the rash cult wanting to send "messages" to aliens - and the response of a dozen SETI thought-leaders, including myself, asking for discussion.
Not that I’m unhappy with how things turned out… but where was this “sapiosexuality” movement, back when I was a frustrated student at Caltech? hm? Well, it's a new and better and wiser generation.  . . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

My Personal Feminism, 2017

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 08/22/2017 - 09:50
In the wake of Kai Cole’s piece about Joss Whedon, and some of the reaction to it, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a man in the public sphere who considers himself to be a feminist. Part of this thought process was also spurred on by seeing some of the reaction to […]

Our Eclipse Here in Bradford

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 08/21/2017 - 14:58
It went well! We had intermittent clouds in the run-up, but for the first half (closing up to the maximum) we had very good views much of the time, and the clouds weren’t so heavy we couldn’t see. I made a box, but then Krissy’s work handed out eclipse glasses, so we used those instead, […]

Exit strategies Part II: Surprising aspects of the 25th Amendment

Contrary Brin - Sun, 08/20/2017 - 15:48
Is there an exit strategy, in case the crazy gets even worse? Given the rapidity of events, I decided to offer a second weekend posting with some urgent perspectives.

You'll recall that last time I posed “four options.”  Among those exit strategies, I urged that we look away from impeachment, which would only serve the interests of those who gave us this phase of civil war. (Don't go there!) Indeed, as the clinical symptoms displayed by President Trump grow ever more extravagant, folks have started invoking the 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Do give it a careful read, because things could get critical very fast. The pertinent stuff starts here:
'Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.'
Note this line in particular: "...or of such other body as Congress may by law provide..." 
Hence Congress can establish, by law, a commission of sages who may - in coordination with the Vice President - declare the President unfit to discharge his duties. Interesting. But has anyone, especially in Congress, actually thought through the implications? 
The group that one might normally expect to invoke this amendment — the Cabinet — is filled with Trumpists and some bona fide crazies. They will at best be slow to act on any Vice Presidential request to declare POTUS incapacitated… and hence the VP may also hesitate to ask, even at some critically dangerous moment. 
But consider that other body the 25th talks about. Note: there is no prescribed time sequence, so an alternative commission could be created in advance, and thenceforth serve as a warning to the President, to remain calm. In order to be established "by law," over-riding a presidential veto, the 'other body' would have to be bipartisan.
Moreover, this commission would be able to act - in concert with the VP - almost instantly, should POTUS issue bizarre or especially dangerous orders, offering a way for sane grownups to cancel some crazy action or command. The mere existence of such a commission might ease the pangs of our Officer Corps, knowing they would have a place to turn, if some spasmodic-insane order came down.  I know of nowhere else that they could turn.
Without such a Congressionally established commission in existence, the VP would have to assemble the Cabinet behind the President's back and persuade a majority to betray the man who hand-picked them and to whom they owe everything. Which path do you think is more likely to act as a brake on sudden, spasm-lunacy?
The 25th Amendment continues: "Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."
There it is again. The "other body" or Congressionally-appointed commission - in conjunction with the VP - may then reject the President's demand to be reinstated... sending the matter for decision by Congress. A 2/3 vote is then required in both houses to keep POTUS suspended. 
Thus we have an answer to anyone who claims this step would bypass the popular will, or create undue burdens on the presidency. There are several places where 2/3 majorities are required from both houses, plus cooperation from the Vice President... a far steeper set of obstacles, by the way, than is required for impeachment.
"Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office."
It is infuriatingly unclear what happens during the four days that Congress has to assemble and the 21 days it has to deliberate. I would assert that during those 25 days the VP is in charge. The Supreme Court would almost certainly have to decide.
What is clear is that there’s a way for Congress to lay groundwork in advance, to protect the Republic from an unstable president. A commission can be established... right now... that waits, ready to bypass the Cabinet in this one matter, but still requires both consent and courageous leadership from the Vice President. 
As a way to firm-up its trust and moral authority - especially since establishing it requires a law and hence likely an over-ridden veto - any such commission should be nonpartisan. I'd envision it starting with all the former presidents, vice presidents and retired Supreme Court Justices, plus an array of mighty American notables. (I'd add all U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize.)  And recall, that commission would be backed by the Constitution itself and empowered to cancel or postpone any rash presidential order, by exercising its right to hand reins over to the VP for a limited time.  
The circuit breaker for a mentally ill president is already provided for... if Congress chooses to use it. Note also that Senators and Representatives who might balk at a rush to impeach and remove might go along with simply creating a commission that could elevate the veep for a few days.
Even if such an action has only brief effect and POTUS is reinstated — recall it takes 2/3 of both houses to prevent that — the effect will still be to assure a pause for calm and reflection, during which any rash orders may be put on hold.
Believe me, I see flaws in this as well!  Given that Mike Pence is a member of an end-the-world-as-soon-as-possible cult, and has expressed utter devotion to Donald Trump, I am only somewhat eased.  
Still, I have to wonder. Do you think Congressional leaders are even aware of all this? Has anyone, anyone at all, worked it out down to this level? That the U.S. Constitution itself would support establishing a commission of sages in advance? One that would thereupon be able to act swiftly to protect us?
== Another use ==
Okay, let me share a Doonesbury-level summer daydream. 
Such a commission — established for one constitutional purpose — could serve us in other ways. For example, by informally using the members' high-renown to help set up or endorse reputable fact-checking services that are beyond partisan reproach. 
Imagine both presidents Bush plus Obama, Clinton, Gore, Biden .... and Cheney and Quayle ... joining Sandra Day O'Conner and a dozen other luminaries saying "facts exist and here are several groups we trust to debunk all the lies going around."
Nothing would help us more than some process by which Americans could declare “our greatest sages and best minds say that’s false. So let's put at least that lie behind us.” 
== One way Bannon was right ==

My new posting pattern is to use the first half to address urgent news... and then segué to some of the less-urgent ruminations I've stored up.  So here we go with part 2.

While his malignant influence was partly responsible for the illness, I do agree with the departed-but-unlamented Dark Lord of the West Wing about one thing: the necessity of reversing the decline of U.S. influence, especially vis-a-vis trade and intellectual property. 

Moreover, those of you rejoicing over that decline have no idea, clearly, what the entire rest of human history was like before the 90% benign American Pax. (I agree that the bad 10% really sucked. Culpa nostrum. Now find another era with such a low ratio.)

Here is a very perceptive and articulate Australian view on Trump at the G20. It's actually the best summation of our situation that I've heard or read or seen, all in a compact, on-air report about POTUS effectively ceding leadership of the world to China and Russia. The background image - of the president of the United States, friendless, wandering the lunch table at G20 looking for any of the leaders willing to have him join them - would be heart-melting, if not so richly earned.  (Though thanks Australia… for Rupert Murdoch.)
But it all comes full circle to the weapon our enemies have used to put us into decline... fostering the failure mode that Arnold Toynbee called the destroyer of nations... the demolition of trust in our creative or knowledge castes.

More than half of the Republicans surveyed in a recent Pew poll say colleges and universities are hurting the country, a drastic shift from how the same group viewed such institutions two years ago. Alas, this article doesn't go to the heart of why. Every single fact-using profession is now warred upon by Fox and right-media... scientists, teachers, doctors, journalists, economists, judges, civil servants... and now the "deep state" FBI, Intelligence Officers and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. 
The Orwellian hate fest toward fact-people became essential, as they are the ones standing in the way of a re-imposition of 6000 years of feudalism.  And what do all fact-folks have in common?  Nearly all were influenced by the fact-using places called colleges and universities.
There's more to it, of course, and I explore the disease in more detail here: "Declining trust in our expert castes: what are underlying causes?"
To be clear, this extends to previously exempt groups of fact-users. Elsewhere I have gone on about how the FBI, CIA, and military officers used to be safe from the murdochians’ all-out war on sapient professions. Only now – prompted by the noxious “deep-state” meme -- confederates feel free to wage open war on those fact-people, too.
Civil servants have always been hated-on by the far-right (though Adam Smith extolled them as a counterweight against aristocratic cheaters.) But they were given safety by laws passed since the 1880s (by Republicans, no less.) I have a libertarian corner of me that is willing to discuss how bureaucracies are ever in need of being refreshed to prevent cloying meddlesomeness. Still, we have a civilization with rules and compromises that we agreed to by sovereign political processes.  And while politics has been (temporarily) destroyed by the murdochian-confederates, we still have a civilization to maintain, and civil servants are there to keep a complex society spinning.
Now comes an exposé in Foreign Policy revealing how alt-righters are savagely attacking this final, fact-using group. Career civil servants often endure stressful working conditions, but in the Trump White House, some of them face online trolling from alt-right bloggers who seek to portray them as clandestine partisans plotting to sabotage the president’s agenda. The online attacks often cite information that appears to be provided by unnamed White House officials or Trump loyalists.
“The trend has unnerved the career intelligence analysts, diplomats, security experts, and military officers who are accustomed to operating outside the political arena,” write the authors Brannen, de Luce and McLaughlin.
The anecdotes in this article are deeply  disturbing. But above all they are indicative of the full breadth of this war upon any semblance of objective reality or sapience in American life or governance. The smart bomb question that I ask everyone to use, when they confront their mad-right-confederate uncles (or better-yet, their aunts, who might yet be swayed) is: “Can you name for me onefact-centered profession of high knowledge and skill that is not under attack by your cult?”
As it happens, there are two remaining groups who both have some degree of intellectual accomplishment, and are utterly exempt from the right’s War on All Smartypants.  They are:
Doctors of Divinity
… and…
… members of the CEO-WallStreet-Inheritance caste.
Both groups are beneficiaries of staggeringly huge tax breaks that they extort from us all, via dependent politicians. Both have everything to win, if all the fact-users are destroyed, or at least crushed into submission.
Both have helped to bring about the long-delayed Decline of the West.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Whatever Security Update

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 08/19/2017 - 21:25
A small piece of security information for you: Whatever (was well as the whole site, now operates using https, for extra added security. Mind you, as this site does very little in the way of transactions or anything security-critical, this may not be a big deal to anyone. On the other hand, Google sent […]

Gloom and doom scenarios

Contrary Brin - Sat, 08/19/2017 - 13:34
We've entered a new phase... Generally, I prepare these things in spurts, as much as a few weeks in advance. But events are moving so fast that I must use a new style. These postings will henceforth be in two parts. The well-written and deeply pondered stuff is below...

...but we'll lead with something from the latest news.

And no, I cannot even catch up on the firing of Steve Bannon! I'll link you to my earlier attempts to decrypt this bizarre figure... and the dangerous "triumph of the will" ethos he embodies.  Though in fact, his fall may have come more because he wanted the U.S. to finally stand up for itself in international trade. His one sensible policy may have got him fired.

== Everyone's raving about end games ==

Oh calm down already! All right, you desperately want to envision a way out of this torment. Then ponder four scenarios: 

(1) Impeachment is extremely unlikely, unless Robert Mueller finds smoking guns, big ones. In which case idiot Democrats will call a mob and Ryan will rub his hands with glee, letting them clean up the GOP's mess while riling the confeds to volcanic fury. He'll become VP and we'll tumble into hot civil war. Don't fall for it.

(2): The 25th Amendment.  Trump and Pence would send "letters" back and forth at an ever-accelerating rate until the email servers melt. Congressional Republicans will dither, covering their ears to the blatant psychological melt-down of the man-with-nukes.  Till the Supreme Court has to step in with some kind of non-Constitutional arbiter. Insane amounts of damage.  

(3) Donald Trump is pressured to resign. Um right. That would require something on the order of the Pee Tape. Nothing less and probably much more. You got hopes.

A hybrid seems possible.  DT takes a 'stress break.' A vacation with no electronics of any kind. Dems should insist they get to see him, daily.

(4) Status quo. The circus goes on and on. We depend utterly on the sane adults of the civil service, intel community, law professionals and the U.S. military officer corps to keep us safe, while Donald Trump adds fuel to phase 8 of the Civil War, destroying the Republican brand and riling up the Union to truly take up the fight.... ideally winning overwhelming victory at the ballot box.

#4 doesn't mean passivity! Congress must rescind the 2001 War Powers Act now!  And set up a commission that can (if unanimous) allow the military to pause a presidential command. That commission could be explicitly granted 25th Amendment powers giving it real muscle. (I it is partisan, then we're entering Venezuela territory.  So start with all the ex-presidents, ex-Vice Presidents and ex Supreme Court Justices. Throw in every U.S. Nobel laureate?) 

The fact that DT has made such thoughts necessary - and forced the Joint Chiefs to (just yesterday) issue statements contradicting a presidential statement - is the worst symptom of this disease.  Though remember. Fox is the disease. Donald Trump is only a symptom.

Any "fifth option" I can think of is too horrific for words and I denounce it, in advance.

My advice, especially to Democratic politicians, remains not to fall for traps laid by Paul Ryan and Rupert Murdoch, as I put it here. Though yes!  I still pray for a dem smart and courageous enough to do this.

Above all, you guys need to calm down. Ponder that DT's White House leaks like a sieve, rendering it somewhat harmless... but  Mike Pence - if he gets in - would fill the place with tightly-disciplined Dominionists who will sincerely strive every day to bring about the Book of Revelation's end-of-days. 

We're supposed to be the smart people. We have all of the fact-user professions, right? Use that. Think.

And if that wasn't cheery enough for you...

== Dire Warnings ==
David Wallace-Wells has stirred angst galore, via an article in New York Magazine crying out “Alas, Babylon!” – that all hope is lost. In “The Uninhabitable Earth Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think,” Wallace-Wells cites doomsday scenarios of exintinction level events, such as heat death, drought, food shortages, and climate plagues.
Among the many responses out there, one that is brief cogent, well-written – by Jim O’Donnell – first summarizes the reactions, then gets on to important points. Jim doesn’t weigh how wrong or right Wallace-Well’s assertions might be (I found many of them to be exaggerated, if pointing in needful directions), but focuses instead on the fire and brimstone pulpit slamming preachiness of Wallace-Wells, whose ethos is clearly “we’re all doomed, so get up off your butts! Because, did I mention that we’re all doomed, no matter what anyone does?”
I have long inveighed that reflexive gloom is being pounded into citizens for a variety of reasons:
1. Would be oligarchs, pushing for a return to 6000 years of feudalism, know that fear was always feudalism's foundation and fearful personalities are more likely to seek what George Lakoff calls the "strong father."

2. Reformers at the other end of the (lobotomizing/simplistic) "left-right spectrum" push gloom for reasons of puritan righteousness.  They believe you can get folks to invest heavily in planet-saving or tolerance-spreading endeavors by screaming jeremiads. Hence, it is on the left that immense rage boiled against Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," and against Peter Diamandis's "Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think" -- books that laid down long lists of things that have gone very well and portend more good things, to come.
The underlying reason for hatred of Pinker and Diamandis and others is not based on their actual positions and recommendations -- both of them urge vigorous action and doubling-down on liberal efforts to save the world -- but on their message that these efforts will go better if pursued by a confident people, whose can-do spirit is grounded in past accomplishments. 

Their sales pitch -- that modernist, scientific, liberal society has achieved miracles and hence should feel encouraged and propelled to do more -- is anathema to those stoked on indignat joys of denunciation. (See this counter-productive - and often deeply sick - sanctimony addiction explicated in my article on self-righteousness.)
3. Another driver has been our shared mythologies -- especially Hollywood films, but also my own realm of novels and stories.  Fiction often conveys positive values: e.g. Suspicion of Authority (SoA), tolerance, diversity, and appreciation of eccentricity. (Almost all protagonists exhibit some eccentric trait, which helps bond with the audience.) But two other messages are almost always purveyed, out of a laziness that makes plotting easier, but that spreads a poison:
-  No institution is ever to be trusted.-  Your neighbors are all useless, clueless, cowardly sheep.
These are blatantly untrue, yet purveyed in a firehose of myths and memes. I explain the basic reason in my article The Idiot Plot. 
Now add in a distrust of smartypants know-it-alls, which the right has exploited and converted into all-out memic war against science, journalism, teaching, universities, medical doctors and every other clade of fact-users, now including even the FBI, Intel communities and military officer corps. (All of the latter are now "deep state" conspirators.)
Jim speaks of how "societies which fared best are those able and willing to adapt."  This reiterates the conclusion reached by one of the world's greatest historians, Arnold Toynbee, who found that societies collapsed when they failed to invest in a liberal diversity of "creative minorities" who could respond to challenges with fresh solutions.  (Jared Diamond's more recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, made the same point, but focused narrowly on environmental (often man-made) challenges.)
The long and short of it is that liberals and leftists are allies, for now, but psychologically very different.  While the latter are steeped in radical, angry, sanctimonious and zero-sum thinking - you either follow the party line or the world dies! - the former tend toward positive sum belief in a balance between dire warnings and willingness to at least glance at how far we've come, perhaps even accepting that progress has happened. Indeed, that is the best reason to believe that we can accomplish more.
= Coda: Papa Heinlein would want you to use him right now. Use him! =

I will keep going back to The Master. 

You out there who make excuses for today's madness on the right? You badly need to look again at Robert Heinlein, who tore into the potential for an alliance of oligarchs and pulpit pounders taking over America... a cabal that would --

"promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."

Read more of Heinlein's spectacular insights into our problem. In this linked blog I gave the podium over to RAH, from his afterword to REVOLT IN 2100. And he offers no comfort, no shelter, no justification to those who called him a member of the crazy right. Oh, sure, he hated commies too! But there's no ambiguity which side he'd be on in this phase -- in any phase -- of the American Civil War.

Oh, you Catholics? Don't imagine you'll be exempt. Not when it hits the fan. Or Methodists or Mormons or Israelis etc, either. Listen to Papa Heinlein. Snap out of it.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

New Books and ARCs, 8/18/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 08/18/2017 - 16:44
A very fine collection of new books and ARCs arrived to the Scalzi Compound in the last week, and here’s what they are! See anything you’d like on your own shelves? Tell us all in the comments.

The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 08/17/2017 - 08:00
The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives. ANNA SMITH SPARK: The Court […]

The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 08/17/2017 - 08:00
The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives. ANNA SMITH SPARK: The Court […]

A coming recession? A war? Or just "infrastructure" graft? Oh, the options!

Contrary Brin - Wed, 08/16/2017 - 16:58
Let me put aside the blatancy of our deliberately re-ignited phase of the American civil war.  There are other matters afoot, all sharing a common theme. Lumped together, they add up to everything desired by those seeking an end to the relatively placid and benigh era of Pax Americana.

First, economics. Says investment guru John Mauldin, predicting a recession within two years

“U.S. corporations are simultaneously more indebted, less profitable, and more highly valued than they have been in a long time. Furthermore, they are intentionally making themselves more leveraged by distributing cash as dividends and buying back shares instead of saving or investing that cash. Yet investors cannot buy their shares fast enough. Maybe this will end well… but it’s hard to imagine how.”
Note that while he would never admit it, John's forecast is a brutal indictment not of his bêtes noir -- the government and Fed -- but a CEO caste of 5000 incestuously conniving golf buddies, who have set things up (except in the tech sector) so they can steal company assets, use stock buy-backs to boost share price, rake their options and leave the company wrecked, deprived of R&D or any investment beyond a one-year ROI.
These parasites are the true enemies of market enterprise.  And their shortsighted greed may not escape notice, when that recession comes.
== Drumming up a war ==
But that exercise in biased perception ain’t nothing. Remember how the previous Republican president concocted a war-excuse called “Weapons of Mass destruction” (WMD)? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks that he arguably allowed to happen, Bush Jr. leaned hard on the U.S. intelligence community (IC) to pin the blame on Saddam Hussein. When they reported no such connection – indeed, most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis, trained in Wahhabi madrassas and financed by business partners of the Bush family – he and Dick Cheney put thumb screws on the IC to find another excuse – any excuse – for war.
That was the previous manic phase of Republican Bipolar Disease and it seems we’re fast diving into another, as the Trumpists seek escape from domestic woes.  Elsewhere I’ve explored the reasons why their focus will likely be Iran. Sure, North Korea and Venezuela offer tasty temptations. A flare-up in the South China Sea? Maybe. A terror outrage somewhere at home? Don't be shocked!

But none of these offer the confluence of motive, means and opportunity that DT sees in Iran. Moreover reports suggest that he is already arm-twisting the IC, demanding they stop with the boring truth and fact-telling and offer up the casus belli  pretext that he needs.
This article about the hunger for a fight is pretty harsh and partisan.  I’d read it with some grains of salt. But it’s also generally on-target and scary as heck. 

What of recent events? Exactly as I predicted, both Donald Trump and the Ayatollahs have orderedtheir forces in the Persian Gulf to harass each other, with only one possible motive: a ramp-up to war. Everyone wants it. Trump needs a foreign distraction, Congressional Republicans need feel-good symbolic toughness, the Saudis and dumber Israelis want Tehran knocked down a notch. Putin rubs his hands, knowing such a conflict will send Iran running for shelter under his umbrella, giving him the warm water satrapy Russian potentates have wanted for 300 years. Oh, and the Iranian mullahs? Shrugging off the pippety-pops of a few hundred Tomahawks, they'll use war fever to crush the rising, educated, modernist Persian middle class, a looming threat to their theocracy. 

Oh, and oil prices will skyrocket. Winners all around! Well, not the Iranian or American people. But do you see anyone caring about them? Or the waste of our military strength and personnel?

Why do we still have a carrier task group there? Across the last 8 years, the U.S. achieved virtual energy independence. Our allies are heading that way. What possible reason would we have to cooperate with the Putin-Saudi-Ayatollah-Trump plan, pushing each other with potemkin provocations till the missiles fly? This is not 'national self-interest.' It is the Gulf of Tonkin, all over again.
== Hacking Elections ==
Hackers at Defcon took just minutes to break into and modify a wide array of voting machines. Officials from California provided some. Other  machines were bought on Ebay, and were manufactured by major U.S. voting machine companies such as Diebold Nixorf, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Winvote. `This isn't a great surprise, since many of those companies are owned by political extremists who targeted this vulnerability, ages ago. 

The chief safeguard has always been a system that involved paper ballots or receipts that are scanned in... but that can also be hand audited, in randomly chosen precincts. Wherever random hand recounts are possible, cheating is deterred.
Auditable paper ballot/receipt systems are the norm in blue states. Not in red states, where the GOP Secretary of State can pretty much order up any election result she desires. Also it is blue states and only blue states that have seen voter revolts to end gerrymandering.  And voter initiatives to ease out of the insane War on Drugs. Oh, lecture us about election fraud! Lecture us about dishonesty, confederates.  == Infrastructure on the agenda ==
Ah, infrastructure. One thing all studies agree upon is that a healthy array of highways, bridges, railways and such are like a nation’s veins and arteries, allowing commerce to flow. Under FDR, then Truman and Eisenhower, the “Greatest Generation” invested heavily in interstates, airports, research centers, power systems, hospitals and so on, with huge and unquestioned multiplier effects on the economy. Time and again, it’s proved that well-done projects pay-off and maintenance is money well-spent. Moreover, no form of government spending has higher direct effects on economic stimulation and employment and Money Velocity.
So, why have we been tumbling deeper and deeper into infrastructure malaise, with decaying bridges, corroding highways and underfunded rails?  All parties have uttered words about this, for decades. President Obama submitted proposal after proposal to Congress… and none was even brought up for serious discussion.
Of course the answer was obvious.  Had an Infrastructure Bill passed, during the Republican Congresses of 2011-2016,  it blatantly would have added to economic recovery from the Bush Depression, and the GOP wanted no part of any action that might add to Obama’s luster. (As it is, the recovery during his administration was impressive.)  For purely political reasons — and Paul Ryan and others are on record saying so — they would pass no infrastructure bill during a Democratic President’s tenure. (The word for that is “treason.”)
Okay, now the Republicans have every branch of government — as they did from 2001 to 2007. With a GOP president to claim credit for any stimulation, and terrified of a recession looming otherwise, Ryan and co. are talking up an Infrastructure Bill that might amount to a trillion dollars! Well, okay, at least workers would get jobs. And the treason is over, right?
Wrong. As you might guess, there are several rubs.
1) Paying to build and repair out of tax revenues… the way our parents did it… would conflict with Ryan & co.’s absolute top priority — another huge Supply Side Voodoo tax cut for the aristocracy. Never mind that Supply Side experiments have never worked, ever, at all, even once across 40 years, and many Red States like Kansas have gone bankrupt by doubling down on the witchcraft theory.  To paraphrase Everett Dirksen “A Trillion here, a Trillion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
2) Hence, get others to pay for the infrastructure work! Their magical incantation is now “public-private partnerships.” We the people hand over our property — our bridges, highways and all that — to private interests (e.g. Republican moguls) who will then put some cash into repairs and then charge tolls forever on routes that till-now we (mostly) used as a benefit of civilization.
A win-win? We get some potholes and rusty spans fixed. The moguls get ownership (or lifespan-long leases) of our commons, plus perpetual right to bleed us. Oh, but it gets much worse than I described, here. Read what Robert Reich has to sayabout this win-win-win for oligarchy.  
3) Of course this is not about jobs or even supply side tax vampirism. It is about graft. As in contracting for an Atlantic City Casino, construction deals are among the juiciest ways to do corruption, unless they are handled with scrupulous transparency and accountability. Which most public infrastructure programs do feature! The methods have been developed ever since the WPA and TVA and Interstate System. They never work perfectly, but they generally keep theft down to a low simmer… far lower than most private enterprises, in fact.
See how graft and overbuilding and high tolls have left China awash in overbuilt infrastructure projects. 
Only all of these nit-picking,open-bidding and accountable procedures are being torn down by the Trump Administration. Gee. I wonder why an Atlantic City casino owner would do that? Note the the only winners of the wasteful, trillion dollar US intervention in Iraq were Cheney Bush family companies like Halliburton, who got sweetheart "emergency" no-bid logistics contracts, bypassing anti-graft laws with a wave of a pen. The GOP lords are in no hurry to fund infrastructure projects until those inconvenient accountability rules are either repressed or swept aside, in the next "emergency."

4) Never mind. Blue states have already decided not to wait. Especially in California, Oregon and Washington, restore-and-rebuild projects are proceeding apace, the old fashioned way, as time and again we prove that the Greatest Generation were right in many more ways than wrong...

... back when "America was great!" And when that generation's favorite living human was named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
-->-->. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Writing About Later, Now: Harder Than It Used to Be

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 08/16/2017 - 14:45
I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Writing About Later, Now: Harder Than It Used to Be

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 08/16/2017 - 14:45
I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!

The Big Idea: Stella Parks

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 08/16/2017 - 10:18
I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on. STELLA PARKS: When people […]

The Big Idea: Stella Parks

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 08/16/2017 - 10:18
I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on. STELLA PARKS: When people […]

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 08/15/2017 - 07:42
There’s the saying that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but in order to learn your history, sometimes you have to dig deeper — much deeper — than what is commonly known. This is a fact that has relevance for author Beth Cato and her latest novel Call of Fire. BETH […]

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 08/15/2017 - 07:42
There’s the saying that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but in order to learn your history, sometimes you have to dig deeper — much deeper — than what is commonly known. This is a fact that has relevance for author Beth Cato and her latest novel Call of Fire. BETH […]

A Poll About Beds

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 08/14/2017 - 09:46
Because I thought about it this weekend while Krissy was away: My answer: I stay on the same side of the bed. I’m not entirely sure why, except out of habit. I’ve never really thought about it until now. You?

A Poll About Beds

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 08/14/2017 - 09:46
Because I thought about it this weekend while Krissy was away: My answer: I stay on the same side of the bed. I’m not entirely sure why, except out of habit. I’ve never really thought about it until now. You?

Three Views of a Sunset, 8/13/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 08/13/2017 - 21:37
These shots were taken roughly fifteen minutes apart from each other.  We in Ohio certainly don’t lack for variety in our sunsets, do we. Oh, and just for fun, here’s an old-timey, vaguely creepy sunset take: Yup, that’ll do.
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